Waiting’s Half the Fun: Review of STC’s Waiting for Godot
Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot (1953) has a reputation of being one of ‘the’ plays of the twentieth century. Even though we are able to find earlier works that deal with similar themes (Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, 1938) or use similar stylistic devices (Sean O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie, 1928) Waiting For Godot nevertheless stands as a cornerstone of the western literary canon.
The audience follows Vladimir and Estragon, two tramps, waiting by a tree for Mr Godot. It is implied that upon his arrival, Godot will cause an improvement to their situation. Spoiler alert: he never shows up. The play stands as both a comedic exploration of the waiting process, and a tragic examination of continually deferred hope. For such a simple story it is loaded with meaning that allows for multiple readings; indeed, in academia, after James Joyce, Samuel Beckett’s body of work is the most written about. Unsurprisingly, there are many thematic angles that could be taken when it comes to discussing this piece: religion, memory, habit, companionship, torture, distraction, and like a true masterpiece the themes are interwoven to create a single portrayal of the human experience (at least from Beckett’s perspective).
We can take the theme of time as an example. In Waiting For Godot Beckett challenges the way in which we conceive it. In day-to-day life it is easy for us to think of time as being circular. Our clocks are circles, where they end they begin again. There is the sun: it rises and sets with predictable regularity. The seasons repeat each year, and the months return to us time and again. Each day we repeat a routine, which we will do again and again. And though we think of time as circular, ever repeatable, it is in fact linear, forward flowing and irreversible. We know this to be true and yet we live as though it were circular. We repeat and relive our routines as though each moment were identical. This is the experience of Vladimir and Estragon: each day is a carbon copy of the last; but as Vladimir says, ‘Habit is a great deadener.’ Beckett suggests that when one lives this way, one becomes unable to experience the uniqueness of a moment, or indeed life as a whole. In Godot we are reminded that we need to break away from this way of thinking. We should instead see, experience and embrace each moment for what it is: utterly ephemeral, unique and never to be repeated. If we do not, just like Estragon and Vladimir, we risk losing our memories in a mass of generic past, and likewise we risk losing our future – for what future do we have when our tomorrow will be the same as today?
To this production in particular; Tamás Ascher was originally slated to direct, but due to illness Andrew Upton had to step up. The set is a rundown stage. Although visually striking, it is a common interpretation (the celebrated McKellen/Stewart version of Godot staged at the Opera House in 2010 also took this angle). The program states that the set ‘is covered in … volcanic ash; it is the end of the world,’ a theme more commonly associated with another of Beckett’s plays, Endgame. Regardless, the set serves its purpose, giving us the veritable wasteland of eternal sameness that our two tramps are trapped in.
Hugo Weaving plays the cerebral Vladimir, the metaphorical ‘sky’ of the relationship. Weaving danced around the stage with his hulking two-step, kicking up his heels whenever the excitement grew. It was like watching a bird in flight. Weaving has a magnanimous energy as a performer, whilst still attending to the tenderness of the piece. Both Weaving and Roxburgh proved equally adroit in executing what might be called tragic pratfalls, and they communicated the oft times unspoken tenderness that exists between the two characters.
Richard Roxburgh played the more instinctual Estragon. He permeated the character with a simple gruffness which in many ways reinvigorated the role. In his comic play Roxburgh is a tour-de-force – he growls as he walks whilst punching the floor with his stained feet. This was glorious in the first half, though it became apparent that Roxburgh (at times) relied on gimmick. Whilst it is hard to go wrong with the stock footage of comic delivery, it can spill over into the dramatic arena, sacrificing other touching moments or indeed, more interesting approaches to the line. This however, is largely suggestive of the need for a more involved directorial hand.
Whilst Estragon and Vladamir are joking, bickering and musing on the profound, their shared test of endurance is interrupted by the overbearing Pozzo and the hapless Lucky. Philip Quast plays the grotesque tyrant; he is solid and booming. Quast has a lyricism about him that makes his presence electric. He was impressive in all manners of speaking, though arguably his second act was weaker than the first. But the real stand out of this production was Luke Mullins as Lucky, Pozzo’s simpleton slave. Mullins’ Lucky was a disturbingly fragile, twitching bird of a man, sporting long flowing white hair. Mullins was an impressive physical performer and concocted a shattering gasp for Lucky’s communication, always unsettling to hear. His performance was measured and uncompetitive, which made it all the more impressive.
There is perhaps little to be faulted within this production, and likewise there is much enjoyment for an audience to take. Nevertheless, Beckett aficionados might feel that the rendition lacks thoughtful interpretation. The troupe of actors, although doing a marvelous job, may have tried too hard for the cheap gag. To be fair, they do get the laughs, but they may have missed some of the tragedy. We cannot forget that this play is by definition a tragicomedy. Admittedly, hitting this balance is a difficult task, for while the McKellen/Stewart version received this same criticism, the 2001 Beckett on Film adaptation is often thought of as having the opposite problem. Simply put, the desperation towards the hopelessness of their situation is not always evident. When it is, it comes across as mere anger. This could be symptomatic of a lazy production, after all this play is not Upton’s baby, or maybe just evidence of how hard it is to get something as complex as Godot right.
Waiting for Godot is play with the Sydney Theatre Company until December 21st, for more details see their website: